As the star Indian shuttlers made their way into the conference hall of a shiny five-star hotel, one particular shuttler was almost hounded by media persons and fans alike. And, obviously, there was reason enough.
This was in 2018 January-February, just a few days ahead of the fourth tournament of the BWF World Tour, the India Open. And Kidambi Srikanth was just fresh off not one, not two... but four Superseries title wins — only the fourth men's singles player and the lone Indian to do so in a calendar year. He was World No. 3 then, ready to jump the gun and breach the dream-worthy World No. 1 ranking.
Indeed, everyone wanted to talk to Srikanth, and talk, he did. With a charming smile, he greeted each one of his fans, posing for a selfie here and there, signing autographs, before turning to the media and patiently answering everyone's questions.
At that time, he was already being looked upon as a future Olympic champion. Of course, no one asked him about Tokyo then, for it seemed still too far away.
Cut to May 2018. The occasion is the homecoming of the Indian badminton team which has just created history at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Srikanth, himself, has returned from Down Under with two Commonwealth Games medals, one team gold and one individual silver. By then, he had also achieved the World No. 1 ranking, albeit holding on to it for only a week. This time, he looks more confident, there is a more calm demeanour about him, something that gives the vibe that he is more focussed.
This time, one young journalist (read, yours truly) steps up, a little nervous if he should or not, to ask him about Tokyo. However, Srikanth, in his own charming way, points out that while Tokyo is on his mind, his immediate focus remains on the upcoming Asian Games and the World Championships.
"My priorities now are the Asian Games and the World Championships. Badminton is a sport where Asian's are predominating when you compare them with the European shuttlers and the others. So, definitely, it will be very competitive at the Asian Games. I can't really guarantee that I'll win a medal but I'll definitely do my best," he says nonchalantly.
And you can tell, he means it.
2018 is now so far back — especially with COVID-19 disrupting life as we know it — that it almost feels like an eternity.
It's 2021 and certainly, most definitely things have changed. It's the law of nature — change; the lone constant we keep running into.
Where Srikanth used to be India's top male shuttler, feared and respected by his peers, these days he is at the receiving end of all sorts of criticism and mockery. Why? Because he couldn't make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics.
When everyone had hoped — no scratch that off, expected — that Srikanth would bring back a medal from Tokyo, he could not even qualify?
'What kind of athlete is he even?' his own die-hard fans question.
Srikanth, however, is unmoved by all this criticism. "I don't really want to comment on everything, on every statement that everyone else is passing. Because, it is me... I've been through my career," he tells The Bridge in an exclusive interaction.
"Only I've been through my career. So only I know all the ups and downs that I faced, all the injuries that I faced. One thing for sure is that you know, in my whole career, I've never played a match to lose.
"Every time I stepped into a court, I have always wanted to win. Be it in the first round, final... easy opponent, tough opponent... World number one, World number 100, whoever it is, I always wanted to win.
"People really love their players, be it any sport. So they really love them. And they really want them to win every time they play a match. And when you lose, people tend to get disappointed… but that is expected because, you know, everyone will say a lot of things, but only the player goes through those ups and downs."
The ups and downs, the challenges Srikanth faced, really only few people know. He had to deal with injuries that kept on nagging him. And given 2019 was the year to maintain a steady place in the Race to Tokyo rankings, he could not afford to take a break and recover fully.
The thing about athletes like Srikanth is that they keep on pushing, they will go to their very extremes to try and deliver for the nation. They will not think twice even if you ask them to put their entire career at risk just to go and win an important medal for India.
"If it was any other year, I would have really taken about five months or six months break and then, I would have come back and then played tournaments," Srikanth agrees and he, in fact, takes us back to his 2017 success to back up the statement.
"In 2016, after the Olympics, I got injured. I actually had a stress fracture. So I couldn't play for three months. And then when I came back in 2017, I could really start doing well from the point I started playing tournaments. So in 2019, I didn't really have the luxury of taking such a long break because it was an Olympic qualification year. If it was any other year like 2016, I would have definitely taken a long break."
"These things are something that I know not everyone will understand and also, I know you don't go out and, you know, give reasons for all your losses and I don't really like to give reasons for my losses. So even though I played tournaments without being 100% fit, I really wanted to win. But it's also my mistake to go in there, to a tournament without being 100%. So I really want to take that blame. And I will definitely make sure that these things do not repeat again," he says with assurance, as if he is reminding himself more than answering a question.
One common assumption about Srikanth is that a lot of his problems have been self-inflicted.
To win a badminton tournament of repute, you need to play five days of good badminton. Apparently, Srikanth isn't quite capable of doing that anymore. There is a general consensus that he is a slow starter, he cannot finish off matches which he should in a quick fashion but instead drags them on the third game, which in turn doesn't let him preserve his energy.
But, the thing is, it wasn't just the missed chances, narrow defeats, or injury problems, or even Srikanth pushing himself through injuries that is entirely to blame.
This is a pandemic year after all. And the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the sports governing body, cancelling qualification tournaments at the shake of a leaf did nothing to help the Guntur-born shuttler's cause. Okay, some of his performances may have been disappointing but it didn't mean he would not make the cut for Tokyo.
"I only needed about 5000 or 6000 points and good five tournaments," Srikanth says. "It was not a very tough task. And given the way that I was playing, probably when I played the semi-finals of the Swiss Open this year, the following week was German Open, but it got cancelled."
"If that tournament also would have happened, if I would have played probably another semi-final or a final in German open, I would have been to maybe 18 or 17, from 20," he continues.
"And then 16 is the cutoff for the qualification. So I would have almost been there. But to have the German Open cancelled, then to have India Open, Malaysia, Singapore.. everything got cancelled, then the Badminton Asia individuals got cancelled. So all those are very big chances given the situation that I was in."
"It's really important for all the tournaments to happen. Please schedule tournaments to happen. The tournaments themselves are not happening, when you are losing out on the chances. For me, especially because in 2019 I was injured and I couldn't really play all the tournaments that happened in 2019.
"I really wanted tournaments to happen. Be it in the first four months of last year, for the first five months of this year, I really wanted tournaments to happen. But last year, the tournaments got postponed, cancelled or whatever. And then the same scenario repeated again this year. Now, to have five tournaments get cancelled, and then to not count all the five tournaments and then, you know, release the Olympic qualification points, I think that's something we could have done a little better."
"But yeah, that's how it is for everyone," Srikanth accepts. "It does not really... I don't really want to think too much about all of the negatives. It's just about staying positive, and then thinking about what's next."
What would have happened if Srikanth Kidambi was representing India at Tokyo 2020? Could he have won a medal?
"If I was qualified, I would have definitely tried to win a medal for sure," Srikanth retaliated. "And again, definitely, you know, if I'm really playing, and I'm really very confident with myself, my physical condition... on my day, I can win against any opponent. An Olympics is probably about nine days for badminton. So you know, if I can really do well in all the five matches that I have there at the Olympics, I can definitely win a medal."
"There are a lot of positives that I can take. And I definitely keep them in mind and work on myself, you know… to get better and then to play in the next set of big tournaments."
"Nobody actually predicted what's coming, or even now from this position, we don't even know what is going to come in the next few months. So we are in a situation that is unpredictable. So for me, what has happened has happened. I don't really have any regrets... for me, it's just about thinking about what I have in the next few months. Thinking and working on playing well, getting better. And then do well in the next tournaments that I have," he signs off.